I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.
Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category
Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).
Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.
So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:
That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.
William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.
Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.
As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.
The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.
The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:
The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.
As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.
Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.
Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:
Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.
This came to my attention a month ago. I drafted a post, forgot about it in the election/migraine event horizon but now want to get it out my drafts section. I think it’s worth posting because we are likely to hear more of this from the more hysterical environmental wing.
The chart, from Ezra Klein’s usually excellent Wonkblog, purports to show a steep rise in weather-related fatalities in recent years.
It doesn’t show anything of the kind.
First of all, what it shows is a slight decline or flat trend with a few recent spikes caused by a 90’s heat wave, Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tornados. Now maybe you can argue that we should pay more attention to these in the era of global warming because they may be related (or may not). I agree. However, the long term trend in almost all categories is down — way down. Deaths from lightning strikes are down by over two-thirds over the last 70 years. That’s real progress.
But the progress is even better than the graph shows. The graph makes a huge blindingly obvious error; one that Klein’s readers jumped on immediately: it does not account for population growth. The first data point is from a sample of 140 million people while the last if from a sample of 310 million. To compare raw figures is simply ridiculous (and, indeed, Klein’s co-blogger later tweeted a version with death rates that was far less dire and showed dramatic declines in weather-related fatalities).
The third problem is less obvious but potentially the worst one. The plot includes deaths from heat, cold, “winter fatalities”, rip currents and wind. Heat deaths are particularly important to the point Wonkblog is making since, presumably, global warming will result in more deaths from heat waves and drought.
The problem is that the NOAA, from whose data the graph is taken, did not track heat deaths until 1986. The same goes for many deaths in the “other” category. Cold fatalities were not tracked until 1988. Winter fatalities until 1986. Rip currents until 2002. Wind deaths until 1995. No correction, none whatsover, is made for the incomplete data that spans the first five or six decades of NOAA’s sample.
It is simply not sensible to treat the data as though there were zero deaths from heat and other categories before the mid-1980’s. In fact, there are many reasons — the spread of air-conditioning for example — to suspect that heat-related deaths were much much higher in the past. It would defy common sense for the sharp reductions in fatalities from tornados, hurricanes and lightning (not to mention earthquakes) to not reflected in the statistics for other weather-related deaths.
But let’s not assume. Let’s go to the record. The data start in 1940, which usefully omits one of the greatest environmental calamities in American history: the Dust Bowl. Thousands died; at least 5000 in one 1936 heat wave alone. Another massive drought hit in the 1950’s. A 1972 heat wave killed 900 people. A 1980 heat wave killed 1700 people. All of those happened before the NOAA tracked the number of heat-related deaths. None are in the sample.
To be completely honest, the NOAA data seems a poor resource for this kind of study. It apparently does not include the 1988 drought, recording only 47 heat-related deaths in that two-year period. But it does include the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. I have no idea what their criteria are. I suspect they are counting deaths from specific short-term heat waves rather than broad massive events like the 88-89 drought. That’s fine as far as it goes. But if your attempt to quantify long-term trends in weather-related deaths ignores droughts; if it ignores the God-damned Dust Bowl, I would submit that you are looking at the wrong data.
So, in the end, the claim that we are getting more weather-related fatalities than ever is, at least in this case, based on a heavily biased poorly understood sample that barely supports the conclusion
CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:
While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.
You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.
Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.
Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.
This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.
First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.
(*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)
Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:
Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.
“I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.
It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.
Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.
Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.
The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?
Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?
I love this:
The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.
While I find this study, in which people are fooled into arguing against previously-held opinions, interesting, I think many bloggers/tweeters are missing the critical point. On almost all issues, people are of two minds. It is rare that someone encounters an issue where they can not see the other side at all (we call those people “fanatics”). Even people who have a very strong opinion can usually see where the other side is coming from. And, on many issues, we’re kind of on the fence.
The gripping hand is that, unless someone is really passionate about an issue, they haven’t really thought through their arguments very well. They’ve mostly reacted, usually by agreeing with whomever they perceive to be their “side”. And when they do think about the issue, they tend to argue toward whatever side they have already picked.
As I say so often: human being are OK at thinking; but we’re dead awesome at rationalizing.
What the exercise does is not shift their moral compass. What it forces them to do is what we used to do in debate club and what I still try to do while writing blog posts: try to argue the other side. By trying to think of the arguments the opposition might raise, you strengthen your own arguments. And sometimes, you realize that the other side was right to begin with.
So, no, the results are not terribly surprising. But they are interesting.